Whether pursuing goals related to work or personal life, many people struggle to bring the important ones to completion. This is no trivial matter.
Dr Brian Little, psychology researcher at Carleton University, reckons the best predictor of life satisfaction is project outcome. Or, more precisely, how likely people feel it is they will successfully complete their projects and reach the goals they set for themselves.
Problems in goal attainment
Most of us spend our lives juggling a variety of pursuits. At any given time, each of us has around a hundred different goals, which may be as insignificant as picking up milk on the way home from work or, at the other end of the spectrum, targetting an impact as large as changing the philosophy of the industrial world.
Why is it so hard for some people to finish what they set out to do? The three most common causes of frustration are:
Not knowing what you really want:
People don’t always know what they want, so they set their sites on a project that may seem meaningful at first, but turns out to not be what they’re truly after. Once the shiny object loses its lustre, any motivation to obtain it fizzles out.
Setting unreasonable goals:
People sometimes set goals that are beyond their control; or sometimes they shoot for an objective that simply can’t be achieved in the amount of time they allocate to work towards it.
Losing sight of the goal:
People don’t stick to the plan they laid out to reach their goal. Sometimes they get distracted by some new opportunity, and put aside what they originally wanted to accomplish.
This whole business of setting and reaching goals is important enough to open up several lines of research, with results that might help IT directors bring both their work and home projects to completion quicker and more predictably.
Consider some of the more salient findings. Research in procrastination shows that people easily turn their attention away when they are doing something they feel forced to do or when they aren’t comfortable with the expected outcome and what it means to their self-image.
If you don’t have a choice in the matter, you tend to work like a slave, which is neither efficient nor the right attitude for bringing the project to completion.
People who are afraid of what project outcome means to their self-image also seek to avoid working towards the objective and are easily distracted.
Think of all the people who have trouble finishing a thesis, a presentation or a book, for instance.
According to Dr Carol Dweck of Stanford University, if you set out to do something with the attitude that the results will prove you have talent, you’re likely to put off working on that project, and you won’t work as well.
You’ll probably interpret all minor setbacks on your way to achieving your outcome as indicators that you don’t have the talent you wish to display.
Dweck says that a healthier and more productive approach is to maintain a learning-orientated attitude. All you have to do to reach your outcome is learn.
With this kind of attitude, obstacles that stand in your way say nothing about your core self. Whenever you come up to a hurdle, you just learn the things you need to jump over it.
The hundreds of goals most of us set all have different attributes. At Carleton, Dr Little and colleagues have developed a system for classifying pursuits along a variety of dimensions.
One dimension is control: how much control do you have over project completion?
Another dimension psychologists use to catalog personal projects is the community dimension, along which you can plot the extent to which a goal is of value to people who are important to you.
Pursuits that are relatively low on the community dimension may be blocked by those around you. Conversely, you’re likely to get help from other people for those goals which are of value to the community.
What researchers have found is that some of the biggest problems in goal attainment start with what the objective means to the person setting the goal.
How do you define your goal and what is your attitude towards the outcome?
There’s an easy method that will help guarantee completion of your projects. Try setting targets with the following essential characteristics:
- Everything that has to be done is within your control
- The outcome is important to you
- Working towards the goal is something that requires learning, as opposed to something you do as a way of showing off talent
- The outcome is not only important for you, but also for people close to you
- The project is challenging
- It’s something you choose to do
If you find that hard to remember, you might try using the acronym WILL DO, where:
W is for Within your control
I is for Important
L is for Learnable
L is for Love – you do it in the context of a community. The outcome is important to other people and you have support
D is for Difficult
O is for Optional – you choose to do it
If a goal doesn’t have all these elements, consider redefining it. For example, a salesperson who is trying to win 10 deals next year will find that taking those orders is not within his or her control. Customers have to agree and economic factors come into play.
However, the salesperson can set the goal to do everything possible to win 10 deals next year.
By defining an objective in this manner, all responsibility for bringing the project to completion lies with the salesperson, and he or she wastes no time worrying about forces beyond his or her control.
Another element that frequently requires a little thought is the last one, which is that the goal be optional. If your boss comes in to tell you to complete a project by next week, that’s not your goal. Your goal is to get a promotion.
You alone choose your pursuits. You alone are responsible for reaching the goals you set.